Although it can be found across the state, one of the more prominent shrubs in the western part is Buffaloberry or Shepherdia argentea.  It is perhaps most conspicuous during the fall when the small reddish to golden yellow fruits clustered along the branches stand in contrast to the various golden browns and yellows of the autumn foliage.   Many people develop an appreciation buffaloberry, and many sharp-tailed grouse and mule deer hunters probably have a story or two to tell about their game and a buffaloberry patch.

Buffaloberry is a member of the Elaeagnaceae or Russian Olive Family and ranges roughly west of a line from Manitoba to Oklahoma and New Mexico.  It reaches its greatest importance here in the Northern Great Plains short grass and mixed grass prairie where it may be found in green ash draws, brushy hillsides, riparian areas, and other habitats.

Also known as bullberry, buffaloberry is a native deciduous large shrub or small tree which grows to 6-20 feet tall and is easily identified by its silvery leaves with rounded tips, and whitish spiny-tipped branches. And of course this time of year the small reddish to golden-brown fruits clustered on the branches are particularly conspicuous.  But no doubt some of you have observed some plants that do not produce fruit.  Those are the male plants.  Buffaloberry is dioecious, meaning it produces separate male and female plants.

Buffaloberry is of little or no value to livestock, but it is an important browse species for mule deer and pronghorn.  And those fruits are widely known to be important food items for a variety of game and non-game birds and small mammals and along with the buds are important winter food for sharp-tailed grouse.  And we humans use them as well for making some tasty jams, jellies, and pies.

It might surprise you, but buffaloberry is a nitrogen fixer.  Legumes are not the only species that have worked out a mutualistic relationship where bacteria live in little nodules on the roots of the plant and make nitrogen available to the plant in exchange for a well-furnished home with all the necessary amenities.  As you might expect, Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), after which the plant family is named is also a nitrogen fixer. So is the small silver leaved shrub of the same genus as Russian olive commonly known as silverberry (Elaeagnus comutata).

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.



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